10/21/2002 11:00PM

BC Countdown - Sprint: Kona Gold's magic number is five


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Kona Gold, the veteran sprinter, is a throwback to a bygone era in racing.

At a time when some stars have careers that barely last a year, the 8-year-old Kona Gold will be making a record fifth appearance in the Breeders' Cup, Saturday at Arlington Park.

For Kona Gold, Breeders' Cup Day has been all about the $1 million Sprint. He finished third in 1998 at Churchill Downs, second in 1999 at Gulfstream Park, won the race in 2000 at Churchill Downs, and finished seventh last year at Belmont Park.

For trainer and co-owner Bruce Headley, and co-owners Irwin and Andrew Molasky, Kona Gold's appearance on Saturday is not an opportunity to reminisce. They feel that Kona Gold, the champion sprinter of 2000, can still be competitive at racing's highest level.

"To me, he's a once in a lifetime horse," said Headley, 68. "He's never had an injury, but maybe father time is catching up. He's easy on himself and still eager. He still enjoys going to the track and training."

With his appearance on Saturday, Kona Gold surpasses the achievements of three other Breeders' Cup veterans - Affirmed Success, Pleasant Tap, and Precisionist - all of whom made four starts in the Breeders' Cup.

Precisionist ran in the Cup in 1984, '85, '86, and '88, and won the 1985 Sprint. Affirmed Success made four starts in the Sprint and Mile from 1998 to 2001, with his best finish a fourth in the 2000 Mile. Pleasant Tap started in four consecutive Breeders' Cups from 1989-1992, with seconds in the 1991 Sprint and 1992 Classic.

Several horses have made three starts, including Cardmania, the winner of the 1993 Sprint, who finished third in the 1994 Sprint as an 8-year-old.

Kona Gold, a gelding, has won 13 of 25 starts and $2,133,864, but is not listed among the leading contenders for the Sprint. With only two starts this year - a win in the Grade 3 Los Angeles Handicap on June 2 and a sixth in the Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood Park on July 6 - he has not attracted national attention.

But since he returned to Headley's base at Santa Anita in late summer, Kona Gold has been working brilliantly. On Sept. 30, he zipped five furlongs in 57.40 seconds, the best of 47 works. He worked another bullet for five furlongs on Oct. 7, going in 57.20 seconds. On Oct. 14, he slowed down to 58.40 seconds, but it was still the fastest of 26 works.

"If everything goes right, he'll run like a million bucks," Headley said. "He's always been a real pro and a smart horse. It couldn't be easier. He doesn't pull or run off. He responds to a few ounces of pressure. That's why he's lasted so long. If he would pull, it would add tension, and he could be injured."

Campaigning old geldings is familiar territory for Headley. Softshoe Sure Shot, who earned $581,241, raced until he was 9. Lakota Brave raced in stakes at 10 and earned $445,913.

Kona Gold is so old that the sons and daughters of some of his rivals from the late 1990's reached the racetrack this year.

Headley, who regularly exercises Kona Gold, said the gelding has been injury free through his career. However, there have been several instances when he was turned out for a vacation. He made just five starts in 1999 and six last year.

"I think [Kona Gold] is one of the all-time greats," said Andrew Molasky, 48. "This has been a dream come true. He wouldn't have to do anything else. Bruce has managed him beautifully."

After the 2001 Breeders' Cup, Kona Gold finished fourth as the favorite in the DeFrancis Memorial at Laurel Park, a road trip that Molasky and Headley say they regret. Following that race, Kona Gold was turned out in Headley's expansive backyard in Arcadia, Calif., four blocks from Santa Anita. There is enough space there for Headley to work with his yearlings and for Kona Gold to have a grass paddock, shade trees, and a sandbox to roll in.

"He needed it," Headley said. "He was getting a little stale."

Kona Gold returned and won the Los Angeles Handicap under 125 pounds, but finished a troubled sixth in the Triple Bend on July 6. The loss gave his doubters reasons to question his ability, but Headley insists Kona Gold had trouble in that race and was unable to run his best. Later that month, Kona Gold was scratched from the Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap at Del Mar because Headley was unhappy with the 124-pound assignment.

At that point, the focus turned to Saturday's race - and a record fifth appearance.

"I kind of designed it that way this year," Headley said. "I have to credit Kona. He's feeling so great. He's one of a kind."